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Curtis Compton/AJC
Former UGA defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter celebrates a victory which clinched the SEC East for the Bulldogs.

Opinion: UGA’s recruiting success can keep on top in SEC East

Brandon Adams

A major offseason question facing Georgia is how it matches up against Florida — one of the program’s biggest rivals, and a popular pick from the media for a breakout season.

The biggest argument against Florida overtaking UGA probably centers around the perceived talent level of the two programs. The Bulldogs have had the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class in two of the last three years and haven’t finished below third in the last four years. Comparatively, Florida hasn’t finished higher than ninth in the 247Sports Composite Team Ranking since 2013.

Yet 247Sports’ Bud Elliott — architect of the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio,” which lists national championship contenders based on the theory that a team needs more former four and five-star recruits than lesser prospects –has warned against using a recruiting edge as the reason for picking one team to beat another.

“Betting on a team outside the Blue-Chip Ratio to win it all is a pretty bad bet,” Elliott has said. “But using the Blue-Chip Ratio to pick individual games is also a bad bet. It is simply not designed for that purpose. The only purpose is to say which teams have recruited well enough to win a national championship.”

Should Elliott’s words make confident UGA fans second guess themselves?

UGA lost to South Carolina in 2019, and the Gamecocks had inferior talent to the Bulldogs by almost any measure. However, UGA fans have also watched their team enjoy three straight wins against Florida, and better players seemingly have been a huge explanation for the streak.

Therefore, it’s probably fair to say that better talent isn’t a fool-proof mechanism for picking games, but having better players is clearly an edge any team would want for itself.

The issue facing UGA as it tries to beat Florida again and win the SEC East for a fourth-consecutive season is how to maximize that talent advantage.

As mentioned Friday on DawgNation Daily, UGA’s Blue-Chip Ratio is 82 percent. Florida’s is 63 percent. Theoretically, if we assume those percentages of an 85 player roster, the Bulldogs have an edge of about 17 former four and five-star recruits that the Gators don’t have.

Three-star recruits can outperform their more highly-rated counterparts, and elite recruits sometimes don’t pan out, but, to state an obvious point, having access to 17 more players with NFL potential than your opponent is a good thing.

Yet to understand this potential edge to the fullest extent, it’s probably best to identify where those players exist on the Bulldogs’ roster.

The position groups in which UGA coach Kirby Smart has out-recruited Florida the most are at running back, offensive line and wide receiver — where Smart has nearly doubled the Gators’ acquisition of four and five-star prospects over the last four years. As well as along the defensive front seven, where Smart has signed 24 former four and five-star recruits at either the defensive line or linebacker positions — compared to just 16 for Florida.

Those are the position groups where the Bulldogs must outperform the Gators if UGA is going to maximize its talent and win the SEC East again.

Of course, there are also some questions about those groups too.

For instance, it’s easy to notice the embarrassment of riches UGA has at running back. Zamir White, the early pick to be the team’s leading rusher, was the No. 1 back in the country for the 2018 class, and all the other contenders for playing time — James Cook, Kenny McIntosh and incoming freshmen Kendall Milton and Daijun Edwards — were also touted recruits.

Yet questions persist about how this group will be able to replace the productivity of D’Andre Swift — the Bulldogs’ leading rusher in each of the last two seasons now with the Detroit Lions.

Similarly, the wide receiver spot is loaded with options — including four incoming freshmen who were rated as four-star prospects — but the position group hasn’t been a strength during Smart’s tenure, and was commonly mentioned as a reason the Bulldogs’ offense sputtered in 2019.

Complicating matters more is the need to replace three offensive linemen from last season — including two tackles taken in the NFL draft’s first round. Once again, UGA has countless talented possibilities as measured by recruiting rankings, but few proven commodities.

It will be bad news for the Gators and the rest of the SEC East if the young Bulldogs who’ve been waiting in the wings at running back, wide receiver and offensive line thrive in expanded roles, but if UGA shows any signs of growing pains from these spots, the door could be opened for an upset.

The same thing is true for UGA’s front seven.

The Bulldogs arguably have the nation’s most talented defense, and a lot of that talent resides at either the defensive line or linebacker positions. However, while UGA was first in the SEC in yards per play allowed (4.29) last season, it was just sixth in tackles for loss (76) and seventh in sacks (31).

Given the number of former elite recruits along the front seven it seems fair to say UGA needs to add more of the so-called “havoc” plays to go along with its already stingy defense.

If the Bulldogs can do that, and use some recent recruiting success to answer some questions on offense then UGA should be hard to beat once again in the SEC East.

But being “hard to beat” isn’t the same thing as being impossible to topple, and the presence of a rival who thinks it’s on the rise — such as Florida — might be just the motivation UGA needs to get the most out of all its position groups for the upcoming season.

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